Every encounter I experience in life becomes an act of improvisation.
I often begin sentences without having any idea of how to come to a conclusion, but as soon as a stage and an audience are involved, the task understandably becomes more daunting.
Last week, I traipsed down to The Improv Space to attend my first performance at the weekly Improv Sessions – opportunities for anyone interested in improvisational comedy to practice their craft or learn the skill from scratch. As a complete newcomer to the art form, I feared the worst and hoped for the best.
“When you’re in center stage, that’s when you can just be a kid and if you enjoy that, then the stress just kind of dwindles away and then you use it to your advantage,” said alumnus Lawrence Marshalian, a co-host at the Improv Sessions.
Marshalian and his co-host Blake Rosier opened the session Wednesday night and immediately set the tone for the evening, joking about a supposed dress code and a strict no-food policy while wearing shorts and eating french fries on stage. They began pulling out names from a top hat, compiling the first group of people who would perform onstage. I silently hoped I would not be called just yet as I shrank back in my seat. Once I heard my name, a rush of excitement and a pang of fear simultaneously coursed through my body as I prepared myself for the show.
Group performances began by involving the audience and asking if they had seen or overheard something funny or unusual that day, creating the basis for the next skit. Some performers moved around onstage with ease, constructing hilarious scenarios with seemingly no effort at all. Others, like myself, attempted to avoid the spotlight by blending into the background and latching onto the wall on either side of center stage. But my tactic did not work for long, as I was soon tapped on the shoulder and roped into a complex narrative that required my participation.
Alumnus Ari Ryder said his first time on stage was terrible because he focused too much on trying to be funny rather than working with the storyline. But his fellow performers encouraged him to give improv another chance. He said everybody feels nervous onstage and suggested putting trust in other performers to overcome the stage fright.
“Just get up there and let all of your inhibitions go and just be like ‘Alright, I’m gonna accept that I’m nervous, accept that I might not be funny and just kind of throw things out there and see what sticks,’” Ryder said. “Work with everyone else on the stage because they’re all there to help you as well.”
The first time I stood center stage, a wave of panic rose in me as I searched for words that would add to the comedic narrative, which situated us in a turbulent Delta Air Lines Inc. flight discussing hazing rituals. Despite my nerves, I felt reassured by the other performers onstage who were ready to jump in and help me complete my jokes or suggest other possible storylines. The more time I spent onstage, the more comfortable I felt chiming in and after my third time performing I even felt confident enough to jump onto center stage without being prompted.
Musical improv performer Alexa Rousso, who also participated in the evening’s performance, said she believes everyone is capable of enjoying improv regardless of their level of experience, especially with strong onstage support.
“The best stage actors are the ones who make each other look good,” said Rousso. “I love the sense of camaraderie – it connects people so much because you’re all in it together with nothing and you’re building something together.”
Naturally, with improv, some awkward pauses and illogical plot holes were inevitable. Whenever I found myself attempting to stifle a burst of laughter or stuttering on stage, my initial response was embarrassment. But once I noticed how encouraging the other performers and the audience were, my insecurities about being on stage faded into the background as I navigated the makeshift worlds of assassins, dysfunctional relationships, odd obsessions and just downright bizarre situations.
Ryder said once performers let their nerves fade into the background and have confidence in their ability to work with others onstage, they can enjoy creating and being part of something that is ephemeral and will never be seen or performed again.
“My favorite part about improv is going up and just being able to be stupid – just being able to be a complete idiot with no repercussions,” said Ryder.
Marshalian said being able to act without inhibitions is a part of the allure of improv; it was the playfulness and support of the improv community that initially drew him to the art form. Together, improv performers can create diverse worlds where the rules of reality no longer apply, he said.
“You get to be anyone you want to be and you get to live in any world you choose – reality doesn’t matter in there because you make the reality,” said Marshalian. “It’s a great gift because it allows for fun stories and enjoyable moments to happen.”
Click the banner to read more features on The Improv Space.